Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Jungle Gym

Papers and crayons tumble to the floor. There are 15 bodies to 10 desks. 3 heads submerge under the table. I crawl under to fetch them. I emerge and find two other bodies violently intertwined on the floor. Spanish curses are uttered from behind. I see scratches, blood, and tears. I feel hungry and nauseous. I close my eyes for 4 seconds. This is all a terrible illusion. I open my eyes. The pieces to the 1000 piece puzzle I begged the children not to open inundate the floor. What am I doing here?

When I was assigned to work for three weeks at Baby Ben (Ben Franklin Elementary School) I was told my job was to teach English to ESL children. However 2 hours and 6 Peptos later, I realized this task was impossible. The class is a jungle gym swarming with children of different nationalities, languages, ages, and temperaments. While I attempt to teach verbs and nouns, 4 little ones are hiding under the table stepping on their classmates’ toes. Another 2 are wrestling. Another 3 are thankfully quiet but are only able to complete the assignment by copying off their peers’ papers. I had come with the intention of teaching but it didn’t take me long to realize I was running a day care (and was doing a pretty bad job of it).

I decide to break the children into 2 groups. I put the 5 younger ones who can’t read and write (2 of them don’t talk) to do a worksheet, on which they scribble and feebly attempt to color. I work with the other 10 kids on pronunciation and vocabulary. 6 minutes later I am interrupted by a child who needs to use the bathroom. 8 minutes later is lunch time, then recess, then another bathroom break. After that their focus is gone so learning for the day is futile. I watch as the kids fill the buses, praying they hop onto the right one. I put my ipod on and go home thinking.

A 5 year old tells me she wants my hair. The trouble-maker finishes his worksheet. The lost child is found hidden in the bathroom stall. The Hawaiian student gently pushes the Honduran toddler on the swing. The 17 year old caresses the crying 3 year old. 2 dirty sweaty arms embrace me from behind. The hurting child clutches my hand. The “mute” child utters his first English word. I smile. I kinda don’t want to leave this jungle gym.

-Alicia Zelek

Show Me the Money - Tucker Page

Oddly enough, it took a weekend in Chicago at my cousin’s wedding to really appreciate the dire situation in New Orleans. Here in NOLA, nothing seems strange, nothing seems surprising, and nothing seems out of place. Gutted houses don’t catch your eye as often when you’ve already seen hundreds of them. The ubiquitous X symbols used by search and rescue teams to mark houses in the hurricane’s aftermath serve as a constant reminder that we’re still in New Orleans, but no longer carry the emotional weight for me that perhaps they should. So many people have told me that Xavier is in a bad part of town that I no longer believe them. After two weeks, New Orleans already feels like home.

The barrage of questions from family members over the weekend, though, put everything here in perspective. When my mom asked me about the shortage of doctors in New Orleans, I responded factually that there are currently no operational public hospitals within city limits. “There aren’t any hospitals?!” she responded incredulously. “That’s crazy!” And indeed it is. The notion that a city with over two-hundred thousand residents has gone two years without a functioning public hospital should shock anyone. But after working for two weeks in the Health Department and seeing firsthand the shortages of both staff and money, I would find it far more shocking if there were not a lack of doctors and open hospitals.

I would like to think that my lack of surprise at the current situation in New Orleans is not a reflection of ambivalence, but rather of my realization that New Orleanians aren’t responsible for many of their city’s problems. (Let the FEMA rant begin.) The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), for those of you who don’t know, is supposed to be helping the City of New Orleans rebuild. However, just last week I compiled a spreadsheet that highlighted the gap between FEMA estimates of hurricane damage incurred by the Health Department and money that the department had actually received from FEMA; for the Health Department alone, the total gap exceeds $5 million. Read that figure again and then ask yourself if you’re still surprised that New Orleans doesn’t have a single operational public hospital.

If you still aren’t convinced, consider the way in which FEMA pays New Orleans for repairs. For some inexplicable reason, FEMA is only in the business of reimbursement; FEMA will not give you money upfront to rebuild a hospital, for example, but it will reimburse you for however much it costs you to rebuild. Of course, any Duke Engage student knows that this payment method is problematic. Let’s say I know that Duke will reimburse me for food, but that I have completely run out of money and that I will not receive my latest reimbursement check for another week. I can’t just walk into a cafĂ©, tell the cashier that I have no money but that I will bring some as soon as I get reimbursed, and then expect to be served. The FEMA reimbursement plan has the same effect. The fact that FEMA has offered to reimburse the City of New Orleans is inconsequential because the city can't afford to rebuild anything to begin with. Many other factors no doubt contribute to the problems that continue to plague New Orleans, but the federal government certainly isn’t helping.

-Tucker Page

Rebuilding NO One TPS Report at a Time - Reid Cater

Customers call into a service number and are asked to leave their information. The next day their call is returned by an employee who asks what service they require and takes their pertinent information. After fielding several dozen calls the employee gathers the various forms he has filled out makes copies of them and files the originals. Next he goes online to print maps of each customers location. He then attaches the maps along with other paper work to the duplicate of the customers form and forwards the packets to the field office. Finally he enters the customers information along with the reference number for their completed packet into an Excel spreadsheet for record keeping.

Since beginning my internship two weeks ago I have completed this process dozens of times. I would probably be doing very similar things if I was working for a company that was installing pools or selling paper. The big difference is that Operation Helping Hands is not selling anything to our "customers" instead we are gutting, painting and helping them to rebuild their homes for free. When I finish a packet and send it to our field office it does not lead to a small profit for a faceless corporation, it leads to a home owner receiving help that they desperately need. It brings them a step closer to returning home to New Orleans.

Sitting in an air conditioned office wearing business casual attire is much easier then gutting houses in the heat. It is also easier to become apathetic when your job mostly resembles Office Space more than Extreme Makeover Home Edition. However, when I field calls from homeowners and process their paperwork I still get to feel the satisfaction of helping people who are in need. Often times they have been trying for months to find someone anyone who might be able to help them. It feels great to be able to say to them that I can make sure that their house is gutted and that we will make sure that the city does not demolish it first. In my desk job directly helping people more than makes up for the occasional boredom of a long Excel spreadsheet.

Having an office job with such rewarding aims may have ruined me for more traditional office jobs. If so that might end up being the most meaningful result of this summer for my future.

Where The Heart Is- Jenny Heffernan

As is customary for the average college student, I filled my Sunday catching up with friends and family at home and around the country. Into what felt like the 19th hour of phone conversation, my best friend asked the inevitable question: “So what do you think of New Orleans?” Without hesitation, I responded with the same enthusiastic “I love it!” that I have used to answer everyone else. Matt, knowing me all too well, then made an interesting remark; “Jen, have you ever not loved a place you’ve stayed in for more than 12 hours?”
My darling friend had a point; I have used the same “I love it!” to describe Duke, Madrid, Charleston, Miami…and now NOLA. This factuality of his comment did not prevent my subsequent wave of indignation, however. Feeling as if my credibility were on the line, I forced Matt to endure a litany of the N’awlins specifics that brought about my love: the people, the culture, the architecture, the history, the spirit. It was then that I realized Week 2’s “lesson”; I already think of New Orleans as home (or one of them).
What’s more, it seems that my somewhat ferocious defense of “my” city isn’t uncommon. Sitting by the waterfront last night, a few of us found ourselves sharing wine and conversation with a friendly couple picnicking nearby. After introductions were made, I asked our new friend John if he was a New Orleans native, to which he responded in the affirmative. Several minutes later, however, he revealed that he and his wife, Kyle, have actually only been in the city for 7 years, and hail from Ohio. Their attitude towards NOLA, coupled with my quickly developing sense of belonging, bears testament to the magic of the place. The pairing of the city’s unique and captivating personality with the unifying effects of tragedy make for a fierce loyalty to the city, regardless of one’s actual origin. Consequently, my work in the Health Department has transitioned, in my eyes, from an effort to help the strangers of Nola to a mission to aid my neighbors. This shift in viewpoint has already served to inspire me more than any altruistic motive could; I’m no longer performing anonymous community service, but rather am serving my community.
It comes down to the tried and true saying, I suppose: home is where the heart is… and my heart is in my work and in New Orleans.

Jenny Heffernan

Who's up for "Twenty Questions?" by Cart Weiland

Consider Andrew Wilson Elementary here in New Orleans:

Once an important part of the Broadmoor-area community, the school now sits abandoned two years after Katrina. The school suffered substantial damage from the storm, and neighborhood residents complain that the laggard response of the city government has brought theft and vandalism to the facility.

Now, ponder Andrew Wilson as a microcosm of city planners’ efforts citywide.

Will Andrew Wilson Elementary be refurbished or completely torn down and built anew?
Which is more cost efficient?
Which does the neighborhood prefer?
If the school is too damaged to be renovated, what are the social implications of tearing it down?
What sort of racial or class issues would this arouse?
If the school is to be renovated…
Has the school already been gutted, or is it still in the shape it was in immediately following K?
What work has the community already done on the facility?
What remains broken? Who will fix it?
What kinds of materials are needed? Who will supply them?
How much money will be allocated to rebuilding the facility? Is that enough?
What projects within the school will we prioritize?
What new technology needs to be introduced to the old facility?
What is the timeline? Is it realistic?
Are there enough teachers to staff the facility?
Have students moved back? Are there enough to fill the school once it reopens?
If students have not moved back, where are they?
What do current students want to prioritize in rebuilding? Is it different from what their parents, school alumni, or city officials prefer?
Should Andrew Wilson be opened immediately or only after other schools are reopened?
Is the school in an area that is at high risk of flooding again? If so, what precautionary measures are being taken?
How soon can we start?

Keep in mind, this is just one school of many.

There are 69 schools in New Orleans that have officially reopened. Before the storm, there were roughly 130. That’s a difference of about 60.

If we multiply these 20 questions by 60, we get 1200.

And this is just the schools.

1200 questions to answer, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg.

-- Cart Weiland

The Greatest Fear- Dana Stefanczyk

I’ll admit it: I’m scared.

I grew up in a suburb in New Jersey, living a comfortable life. I am white. I am female. I am a US citizen. By sheer nature of my birth, I am better off than many. I have accepted my life, and been very grateful for it, and in the past always assumed that I could adapt to different lifestyles.

Here in NOLA, I am scared. I have been warned by many of the dangers of the city, and that I should be extra cautious here. Extra cautious. In Wayne, NJ extra cautious means locking your door when going for a walk on a summer evening or putting on bug spray so you don’t get eaten to death by mosquitos. I realize that is not enough here, and I of course take the regular precautions. We always go out in groups, stay in well-lit areas, and don’t carry valuables around. Am I safe?

In areas off the beaten path, away from the swarms of tourists, I feel like I am always being looked at, like I stand out, and for that I feel like I am a target. A target of what, I don’t really know; perhaps simply a target of wonder for my differences. But is it merely my physical appearance that makes me the object of so many stares?

Maybe it is my fear. Maybe others can see my eyes darting around cautiously at night, or how I jump a little when someone says hi to me while I am running. Maybe it is my naivete, my cloak of ignorance that I hide beneath, yet am desperately trying to shed. No matter how I try to get around it, I simply can’t know what these people have been through. I can hear their stories, I can volunteer for eight weeks, I can live right in the heart of it all, but I can never really understand. I am still a white girl from suburbia, with a world of opportunity in front of me, and as much as I may try to blend in here, maybe I simply can’t.

All in all, my personal safety is not my greatest fear here. I am more afraid for the city of New Orleans, and that whatever I do here won’t be enough. I fear that I will leave and never have a chance to come back, and that NOLA will become enshrouded from public consciousness once again with the veils of time.

I must sound pessimistic here, and in that I realize that I stand apart from this city. Part of me struggles to see the endless optimism of these people, how after everything their spirit never dies. Fear changed to hope, maybe that can be enough. In the end, there is nothing worse than apathy.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Savage Journey... - Nader Mohyuddin

A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

WE WERE SOMEWHERE on the edge of Central City, just north of midtown, when reality began to take hold.

The deadliest district of the deadliest city in America. Murders daily, violent crime amuck. And there we were: property development professionals, an accountant, a law student, and an acquisitions intern.


Lunch, actually. Were you expecting something a bit more substantial? I'll continue.

We had just taken a tour of the multi-family development units throughout dilapidated, abandoned apartments, schools, and churches. Some were well under development and renovation, soon to become affordable apartment housing for the elderly. It's part of HUD's Section 202 initiative, and my employer is working to develop those properties into quality housing for those New Orleanians who have spent decades and decades in the city they love and wish to return to.

But this isn't about housing. I spend enough time at work on that subject. I'll leave that for another time.

This is about lunch.

Terri, our head of finance, suggested Cafe Reconcile as a lunch destination, as she directed her sizable SUV along the bumps on Esplanade Avenue. Cafe Reconcile, I thought, interesting name. As we headed toward the restaurant, I noticed we were turning on to Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. Uh-oh, I worried. The street forms one side of the triangle-shaped area known as Central City, an area I was strongly told to avoid. And we're traveling down it? Surely there are eating options in safer parts of town...

We found a tight parking space and headed to the patio of the cafe. Opening the glass doors revealed a lively scene. Nearly every seat filled, the open kitchen roaring, waiters scattered about, scurrying from one table to another. Nice place, I surmised. Guess it's worth the risk of getting here. I still didn't understand the hype...evidently community leaders, business people, and public officials from all over the city frequent the place regularly. Walking to the table, I glanced at some of the dishes on other tables. Seemed well enough but...what was it about this place that attracted so many powerful people in New Orleans?

And that's when I met the owner.

Cafe Reconcile is really a beautiful organization. It's tough to call it a restaurant, it's so much more than that. The group takes at-risk youth from Central City and other areas of the city and puts them to work at the restaurant, to keep them out of trouble, to teach them valuable job skills, and mentor them to keep them away from the drugs, violence, gangs, and other elements in their communities that can completely ruin their lives. Sure, this business model has its hiccups: the teens forget an occasional order, maybe drop a drink now and then. But the smiles on their faces no matter what the difficulty, no matter what the issue. Our waiter was a young kid, with bright eyes, a starched white shirt and black slacks, and the brightest white teeth, which he flashed all the time through his brilliant smile. It never faded. You couldn't get waiters this nice, polite, and kind anywhere. Really remarkable.

For the record, I had a po-boy. Dressed, of course.

I looked at other tables. Lots of professionals and executives, enjoying a home-cooked style country meal in the roughest part of town, talking it up about every which subject. Like anywhere, "the storm" was a frequent conversation topic. It always. But still, looking around at the patrons, it was quite a thing to behold, but it paled in comparison next to the sight of the hard-working kids, their heads held high, their priorities in order, all thanks to the folks behind Cafe Reconcile.

I learned something that day, something that didn't have to do with adjudicated properties or the inconsistencies of real estate databases. I learned that even in the hardest of times, in the roughest of areas, the power of mentorship, of guidance, of holding out a helping hand to those so often deprived, can defeat all those forces which work to leave life in ruined squalor. Poverty, drugs, broken families, murdered loved ones...everyone working at Cafe Reconcile has seen these horrors first hand. And when all seemed lost, an amazing opportunity arrived to help change these lives for the better, to give them a running start in the working world.

With their big smiles, those kids reminded me that we cannot turn a blind eye to the roughest part of town. We cannot simply tell ourselves, "Oh, there'll always be a rough neighborhood in the city. There'll always be poverty. So what good can we do?" There's plenty. And the cafe showed that in a very real, tangible (and delicious) form. And on a personal level, as a capitalist libertarian, I was quite happy to see a non-profit, privately funded and managed organization provide such a social service, without governmental intervention or (potential) mismanagement. But the important thing is, lives are being changed, futures are being secured, and a better tomorrow lay in store for a group of kids fortune forgot.

Zagat might find fault with a few dishes, but no one can argue that Cafe Reconcile is a real gem. de Gaulle said something that seems really apt for the place, and really, for New Orleans as a whole. So, I'll leave you with that:

It is not tolerable, it is not possible, that from so much death, so much sacrifice and ruin, so much heroism, a greater and better humanity shall not emerge.

pain, pain, go away

NOLA Week 2 has been an entirely different experience for me. After feeling anxious and unsettled for two weeks, I’m just now finding my way in the Big Easy. This newfound comfort, however, was very well earned, coming at the expense of the loss of my appetite for ten days. When transitioning to a new environment, I have come to expect minor physical discomforts, namely nausea, insomnia, and loss of appetite (for a more comprehensive list of my symptoms, we can talk one on one). However, since landing in New Orleans, I had been plagued by some serious uneasiness in my stomach, which I was quick to attribute to the, um, satisfactory (neutral enough adjective?) dining offerings at the Xavier Dining Hall. But even after our esteemed director Joy Mischley bargained for and won us the right to less restrictive food options, I was still not feeling like myself. In fact, I felt worse everyday. My anxiety (I’m referring to it as if I have a disorder-I don’t) was getting worse by the day, and the only option, in my mind, was to ride it out. Starving, sleep-deprived, and physically exhausted, this was not going to be fun. Now’s the part where you’re expecting me to build up to a giant realization, become physically reinvigorated, restore New Orleans, and have my tale serve as an inspirational story for future DukeEngagers (or at least anyone reading the blog…maybe? just a little?) Well, that big moment never happened. I just woke up one morning and felt like I was back to my old self (booooo…terrible anticlimactic story) and only in retrospect do I recognize the source of my unease.

This place was really getting to me. I was internalized the pain and suffering of the New Orleans citizens. I am uncomfortable with the state of affairs in the city. I am upset that I can’t do more to help out. So the moral of the story: Anxiety makes people feel weird. Just kidding. Kinda. In all seriousness, looking back, I welcome the anxiety (I say that now but am really hoping it doesn’t return. I was really hungry. And I didn’t appreciate the anorexia rumors) No, really, but seriously, I like that I felt/feel uncomfortable. I’m personally compelled to do everything in my power to restore some semblance of community and life back to the city. These days, their pain is just as much my pain, and in the month or so I have left in New Orleans, I want to ease it, even if its just a little.

-Joseph lanser

Political Puddle

I really didn’t know what I was doing at Joe Brown Park on Wednesday afternoon, but any break from the monotonous data entry project that Chief Engineer Nguyen assigned me last week, in my opinion, was a much needed break. And then, something rather unexpected happened. I was informed that the mayor was coming to Joe Brown Park to take a look at the recent renovations that have taken place since Katrina.

The park itself is located in New Orleans East, all of which was absolutely devastated by the flooding from Katrina. For the majority of nearly two years the park was unable to gather any citywide consideration to be rebuilt, given the wealth of existing problems with the buildings, homes, and roadways. Representing a venue at which everything from youth sports to wedding receptions would take place, Joe Brown Park, I would argue, was formerly a very important piece of New Orleans East. The restoration of this iconic park, however, was unique in that it symbolized the first real push by the city to restore a very personal part of New Orleans East that would seem to change how people spend their leisure time. This restorative effort was directed specifically at the citizens of New Orleans East, and it was sure to facilitate a boost in morale and, equally importantly, a more active and healthy outdoor lifestyle. I walked around and viewed a park pavilion that was newly painted and restored, a pond fountain, baseball fields, and tennis courts in close vicinity. What I didn’t see was the work that still had to be done. Downed trees from the flooding lined the perimeter of the picturesque panorama. An indoor community pool, likely playing host to standing water that had not been drained from Katrina, sat in the distance. A bike path that zigzagged throughout the park’s scenery remained invisible. We finally convened outside a central park building with a decimated interior and water lines four or so feet from the ground, awaiting the mayor’s arrival.

I was about to meet the storied mayor of New Orleans, Mr. Clarence Ray Nagin (Cee Raaaaay, as described by one of my coworkers). Although I didn’t have nearly as much discontent for the man whom many of the citizens of New Orleans had learned to loathe for his policies behind the handling of Katrina and his off-script and off-key remarks, I still had to look enthusiastic to meet him. When he and his caravanning entourage finally pulled up through the gates of Joe Brown Park, I was uncharacteristically anxious (in a good way). He made the rounds and I when he finally got to me, I grasped his hand and shook it hard. Besides a non-verbal head nod, I was, however, at a loss of words. I uttered in a fairly incoherent manner something to the extent of “Andy…intern…Duke.” I didn’t really embrace the opportunity to come across as smoothly as I had hoped, which was evidently clear to C. Ray, but the experience was something I came to later value.

The twenty or so of us (the meeting was not open to the press, which only added to the cool factor of the experience) relocated inside the air conditioned building following the introductions. Nagin began the very informal meeting by asking a fair amount of factual questions about the status of the park and the strategy and priority for rebuilding. Ms. Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, city council representative for District E of New Orleans, provided Nagin with the majority of the responses, and some of the other representatives from DRC, a construction company contracted by the city of New Orleans for many of the rebuilding projects, as well as the Parks Department chimed in with their respective status updates. During the entire briefing, I lost focus from the actual meeting at hand and switched focus from what Nagin was saying to his impeccably shiny golden head. I had heard legends about it, but to see it in person is a completely different experience.

Nagin was indeed very personable and charismatic, but he didn’t come across as incredibly verbose or well spoken, a trait of his I had grown to expect. One side of me was embracing the fact that Nagin responded to most of the city officials’ and representatives’ updates on the park with “That’s awesome, man” or “Man, that is great” while another part of me, the part that had grown accustomed to Dick Broadhead’s mellifluously strung speeches at Duke, was aching for an amazing oration by Nagin. And of course, there was a third side of me that wanted him to go off on a ridiculous tangent to the twenty of us in the park building on that Wednesday afternoon. The reality is, in hindsight, I agree with Nagin in his characterization of the work being done to Joe Brown Park. Although I would like to think there are better assessments, sometime “That’s awesome, man” does the perfect justice.

-Andy Winslow